The American presidency: two new books

Having barely survived the four years of the Trump presidency I am reflecting on how this unique institution impacts our democracy. There are two new books out about the American presidency, Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, and last year’s book on the presidency of Jimmy Carter, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life by Jonathan Alter. Both are published by Simon and Schuster.

I just finished Peril. I pre-purchased it from Amazon Prime, and it magically came the same day as publication. I know that Amazon is evil, but damn, they’re convenient. I rarely buy books anymore, since to paraphrase from Ecclesiastes, there’s a time to buy books and a time to refrain from buying books. I have too many books. Still, the hype around this one was hard to resist and I didn’t.

Peril isn’t a great book, in much the same way that Lay’s potato chips aren’t great potato chips. To carry the metaphor a little further, you can’t really put Peril down until you’ve had more than you should have.

The chapters are very short, typically a page and a half or two. And the writing level is not particularly high; this is a book for a general audience and it shows. It’s chock-full of juicy anecdotes, but it’s a little light on nuance and political analysis.

In a synoptic approach, the focus is on the last months of the Trump presidency, the early days of the Biden campaign, the 2020 election and its aftermath until the near present. The COVID-19 pandemic pervades much of the scene. The January 6 riot at the capital is told in riveting detail.

I’ll leave it to the experts to decide whether Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist, but in the telling by the two Bobs he’s a small, mean-spirited, vengeful self-centered man. He’s not particularly interested in governing, but he likes being on TV, and he likes people talking about him in positive terms on TV. He brings out the worst impulses in America: nativism, xenophobia, White Supremacy, and hatred of the Other, be it migrants or Muslims.

The Peril in the title is not an understatement. It is clear from the telling that the man was not fit for the job and various theories about there being side-rails and/or adults in the room to keep him in check clearly were wrong. When there were adults in the room, they soon resigned, and the ones that remained were seriously lacking in their moral compasses. Trump like toadies and sycophants and he had plenty of them around.

As in all Bob Woodward books, the price for access seems to be the reclaiming of one’s reputation. Both Bill Barr and Lindsey Graham have clearly cooperated with the two Bobs in telling their versions of the story. They both come off looking better than they should, considering what we know about them from the public record.

Joe Biden and his camp come across as considerably more noble than the Trump crowd, which in fact they are, and this to me is the most interesting part of the story. The story about how Biden decided to run is a good one. After watching the White Supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017, which Trump refused to condemn, Biden believed he was entering a fight for ‘”the soul of America.” It is a sentiment that would’ve resonated with Jimmy Carter. There is some fascinating inside baseball about how Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina became a king maker to help get Biden the nomination.

The two Bobs conclude that the continuing malign presence of Donald Trump remains a peril to our democracy, to which I cannot disagree. The final thing I want to say about this book is that it seems hastily put together. Simon and Schuster is a great publishing house, but this book, or at least my copy of it, had numerous pages where the print was smudgy and hard to read.

The other new book on the American presidency is Jonathan Alter’s His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life which came out last year and it’s also published by Simon and Schuster. This is a much better book in a variety of ways. It may be unfair to compare a full-blown biography such as Alter’s, with an ephemeral book like Peril, but I’m going to do it anyway.

The received wisdom is that Jimmy Carter’s presidency was a failure. Alter tells a much more complicated and nuanced story. He lays out Carter’s many accomplishments as well as the way that Carter hurt himself politically. Carter was stubborn, and he also thought he was above politics. He ignored the people in his own party who had accrued power and they never forgive him for it. It hampered his presidency.

Carter was an unlikely president. How he got there is a remarkable and engaging story. Carter grew up in the heart of the Jim Crow South and grew to be one of the most progressive presidents we’ve had. Carter was very late to the game in the civil rights movement. But once he was President he employed the power of his office to advance civil rights as much as any other president with the exception of Lyndon Johnson.

Carter was also ahead of his time on climate change. He had solar panels installed on the White House roof, which Ronald Reagan had removed. It’s a fascinating parlor game, but also perhaps a council of despair, to imagine what would’ve happened if Carter had won a second term, or if Al Gore had been president. Where we would be right now on climate change? But I digress.

Carter was also ahead of his time on global health and on conflict resolution. The chapters on Carter’s diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinians is one of the most engaging of the book.

Alter recognizes that Carter was one of the most lucky men to win the presidency, and one of the unluckiest men to be president. After Watergate and the dour cynicism of Richard Nixon, Carter ‘s smiling faith-filled optimism seemed just right to the electorate. But once in office he was stymied by events beyond his control, such as the fuel crisis and the revolution in Iran.

One of the really interesting things about reading these two books at about the same time is the comparison of the two men. Carter was perhaps our most moral president, and Donald Trump was well, Donald Trump. It raises the question about character in the American presidency. Unlike other systems we do not have both a figurehead chief of state, and a politician who runs things. They are combined in one awkward office. And it is an extraordinarily powerful office. Few remember that Jimmy Carter was the only president in generations whose administration was not involved in a foreign war.

As a Christian pastor I’m always interested in the interface between religion and politics. I have been dismayed by the Evangelical’s support for Donald Trump. It makes no sense to me. It seems profoundly hypocritical. Jimmy Carter was a legitimate Evangelical Christian. He taught Bible study. And he brought his moral compass to his presidency. Still, he was spurned by the evangelical right.

Alter tells a little known fact. There were six American presidents who invited Billy Graham to the White House. Only one occupant of the White House refused to have him come. It was Jimmy Carter. Carter was an evangelical Christian, but he was also a Baptist, and historically Baptists are very wary of entanglements between the church and the state. It makes complete sense that Carter would not invite Billy Graham to the White House. Good for him.

I enjoyed reading these two books at the same time. From where I sit, character still counts in our leaders. We live in a cynical age, but the kind of moral compass that Jimmy Carter brought to bear on his presidency is looking more and more attractive in these trouble times. We’ll see how Joe does.

(A note to my readers: as you may have noticed I haven’t posted since June. I broke my wrist on July 5, and I’ve had two subsequent surgeries. I am unable to type, so I haven’t been very productive lately. I’m using the dictation function to write right now. I hope to be back to writing before too long. Thank you for your patience.)

“Our abundance, our neighbor’s need.” A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15.

 

Our God is a generous God, and generosity is one of the marks of God’s people. What do I mean by generosity? The dictionary defines “generosity” as “liberality in giving or willingness to give.” (American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition.)

Now you might be thinking that this is starting out sounding a lot like a stewardship sermon. And you wouldn’t be far wrong, but there’s no campaign or solicitation attached to this sermon, just a reminder of what it means to be a generous people who have a generous God.

Generosity is closely related to the word grace, which is a gift given without any merit on behalf of the recipient of the gift, and without any thought of reward for giving the gift. I would like to suggest that generosity is one of those necessary things, without which a family, a church, a community, indeed a society, cannot flourish.

In today’s Epistle lesson, the apostle Paul is admonishing the Corinthians to generosity in a special offering they are taking for the Jerusalem church. A little background is helpful here.

In Acts 11: 29-30 it is reported that Paul and Barnabas delivered to the Jerusalem leaders a donation from Antioch for service to the Christians living in Judea. A half dozen years later a collection for Jerusalem has become a major concern of Paul’s missionary career. The Galatian churches and the Corinthians were told to set aside a certain amount of money on the first day of every week when they gather for worship, and in this reading, we hear of Paul canvassing Macedonia and Achaia.

We catch a glimpse here of what we might call early Christian philanthropy. Paul certainly didn’t invent philanthropy or concern for the poor. Such generosity was part of the Jewish tradition out of which Paul comes.  For example, Psalm 112: 9 says “he has distributed freely, he was given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn Is exalted in honor.”

And, certainly Jesus himself taught generosity. His grace extended especially to those in need, as we see in the two dramatic healing stories we have in today’s gospel.

Keep in mind that the woman Jesus healed was untouchable according to the Law. She was ritually unclean because of her chronic bleeding, and when she touched Jesus’s cloak it should have made him ritually unclean. Instead, she was healed. That’s the topsy-turvy values of the Kingdom of God, where the first shall be last and the last first, the proud shall be humbled and the humble exalted.

Because Jesus comes not for the rich and well-born, but for the poor, the sick, the needy, and those without power and privilege to protect them.

Sometimes, in our time, when social policy is discussed, you hear loose talk about “the undeserving poor.” For Jesus, there are no undeserving poor. In the divine economy, we are all undeserving, because for Jesus, as with the one he calls Father, it is all about grace, which by definition comes without strings or qualifications.

Paul’s argument to the Corinthians is simple enough. One should be generous with one’s abundance, because it is by God’s generosity that one has abundance. More specifically, God’s generosity is shown in his humbling himself to put on our human life in the man Jesus, and to die to take away our sins. This generous act of saving humility is actually what makes Jesus “Lord,” as the humbled one who becomes the exalted one. In other words, such lavish generosity is central to the very identity of God.

So, Paul reminds the Corinthians, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The word in Greek that is translated as “generous act” is usually rendered into English as “grace.” Christians have been the recipient of grace, a free gift out of God’s abundant generosity.

Paul then makes the sale to the Corinthians: “if the eagerness to make a gift is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”

There are two good principles of Christian giving in there. First, each of us doesn’t have to do it all, just our part. We are not God, and God doesn’t want our liberality to create a need in us. So there needs to be a balance.

Secondly, it is the relationship between our abundance and others needs that helps us determine our giving. Paul indicates that someday our need may be met by another’s abundance. This is not the leveling down of communism, rather it is the mutuality of true community where the others’ needs have a claim on my abundance.

This, of course, is contrary to our culture of consumerism, where there are neither any limits to my abundance, and no claims upon them. You may have seen the bumper sticker: “the one with the most toys wins!” That should give us pause.

The life of any society small or large is not a zero-sum game. My winning does not depend on others losing. My thriving does not count on others not thriving. Any social unit, be it a community, a society, a church, or a family needs generosity to properly function.

Without generosity human selfishness is not softened and it becomes “every man for himself.” We’ve seen income inequality in our country widen dramatically in recent years, the rich getting richer and richer, while wages stay the same. This wealth gap is not healthy for our common life. Indeed, it is toxic. And it is certainly not Christian.

What is the opposite of the open hand of giving? It is the closed fist of grasping. The grasping impulse feeds on itself, driving the individual more and more into isolation. James Baldwin wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time)

But giving generously is both freeing and energizing. Let me share an example. I served in my last pastorate for twenty-two years, and in that time, our congregation had three capital fund campaigns. Each time we learned how empowering and liberating true generosity is. Each campaign created new vision and energy in our life together. It strengthened our community as we gave to and beyond our community.

And you have just been through a capital fund campaign to raise money to renovate your meeting house, Project Welcome, to make your building more accessible and welcoming.

And how good do you feel about that? Pretty good I’m guessing. Your generosity is good for you, good for your congregation, and good for your community. As the New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, has written about our lesson today, “Both psychologically and practically there are few things in life that bond together people and institutions more effectively than sharing their bank accounts. (Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament.)

Both the generous church and the generous Christian are happier and healthier than their frightened, cautious counterparts, for in their generosity they participate in the very nature and identity of the generous God, who in Jesus Christ gave himself for us, that we might have life and have it in abundance. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich, yet for your sake’s he became poor, that by his poverty, you might become rich.” Amen.

(I preached this virtual sermon on June 27, 2021, at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI. To see the whole worship service on YouTube go here.)

“A Cinderella Story” A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

“Are all your sons here?” – 1 Samuel 16: 11,12

We all know the story of Cinderella. She is mistreated by her stepmother and her stepsisters, but in the happy ending, it is she that is picked by the handsome prince. We use the phrase “A Cinderella story” to describe a victorious underdog, such as a sports team with no chance winning over a mighty favorite.

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“In God We Trust” A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

 

“In God We Trust”

1 Samuel 8: 4-11, 16-20

Mark 3: 20-35

 

“In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States. It was adopted by Congress in 1956, replacing E pluribus unum, which had been the de facto motto since 1776. “In God We Trust” appears on all our currency. Continue reading

“The Model Shepherd” A Sermon on John 10: 11-18

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said to them. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Later, after he was crucified, the disciples recalled his words and realized that he was the good shepherd, the one who loved and cared for the sheep, even at the cost of his own life. Continue reading